Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Diplomacy in the Age of Trump – Part 1

Published on 08 December 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

When the conference organizers asked for a quick title for this talk, I came up with “Diplomacy in the Age of Trump”. But no matter how you measure it, an age is longer than this administration is likely to last, and a thorough discussion of the follies of the current chief magistrate of our venerable Republic would take up all the time we have tonight and more. In the end we might be angrier, but little the wiser.

Criticism of Trump’s foreign policy isn’t a matter of party politics. Republican leaders from John McCain to George W. Bush have spoken about his betrayal of American ideals and values — former President Bush’s October 19 speech was particularly eloquent. His bombastic “America First” policies have succeeded in doing something I never thought possible, uniting the normally fractious foreign policy commentariat in opposition across the political spectrum, from David Brooks to Rosa Brooks, Eliot Cohen to Richard Cohen.

Fortunately for the Republic, President Trump is not the only one who matters — even if he does have his finger on the nuclear trigger. Our foreign affairs are being managed today not so much by the former reality TV star who is glued to Fox and Friends on the big screens which have been installed in the private quarters of the White House, but by a triumvirate of experienced generals, and especially Jim Mattis at the Defense Department. This is problematic from the point of view of civil-military authorities, but it beats the alternative.

My perspective on these political generals was informed in the decade after I left the State Department when I made a living as a consultant to the Defense Department — as Willie Sutton said when he was asked why he robbed banks, because that’s where the money is. So it was that not too long ago I was sitting around a table in Washington with General Mattis at its head, and heard Newt Gingrich, who passes for an intellectual in the beltway, declare that because of the Obama administration’s inability to concoct a political strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan the military would have to come up with one itself. Jim Mattis was unpersuaded.  In his confirmation hearing, he said: ‘we should use military force only when it is in the vital interest of the United States, when other elements of national power have been insufficient in protecting our national interests, and generally as a last resort.’ His departure would produce a crisis in Washington as considerable as the dismissal of Bob Mueller.

So instead of starting with the infuriating scene in the beltway — we will get there, I promise you — let me try to lower everybody’s blood pressure by putting it in some perspective, and talking about our foreign policy institutions.

Americans have always been uncomfortable with diplomacy.  It comports uneasily with our cherished notion that we are an exception among nations — 192 of them at last count, all juridically equal in theory, and none more exceptional than any other in terms of international law. Despite its air of antiquity, the term was not invented until about 1800, when it came into currency first in French and then in other European languages. The Enlightenment used “negotiation”, a term with the virtue of clarity. Everybody knows that it requires give and take and compromise, while diplomacy conjures up rituals performed by old white guys in striped pants and top hats. But for better or worse, after some 200 years of diplomacy and diplomats we are stuck with it, and them.

From the beginning a whiff of sulphur was attached to the term diplomacy for Americans. In 1812, as war loomed with England, it was associated with the wiles of perfidious Albion. The town fathers of Burlington, Vermont, denounced the ‘injustice and chicanery of British diplomacy’, and their counterparts in Milton, Massachusetts, worried that ‘the rights of our present & future generations’ might disappear ‘before the diplomacy of Courts’ — forgetting that only a generation earlier Benjamin Franklin at the Court of Versailles had been instrumental in securing their independence, and that at the Court of St James stout John Adams had negotiated to consolidate it.

During the long peace of the Cold War, when our minds were concentrated by the threat of nuclear annihilation and the zero sum game we played around the world with the Soviet Union, we set aside our hesitations about diplomacy. In the immediate postwar period, under George Marshall and Dean Acheson, the State Department ruled the Washington roost, and Foreign Service Officers like George Kennan helped set our grand strategy of containment of the Soviet Union. When at the White House Henry Kissinger expanded a small staff from a few dozen to forty or so — the number today is about ten times that high — Acheson denounced him as a “court favorite advising the monarch in his antechamber”, and declared that he would not have wanted to be Secretary of State in such circumstances. But when Kissinger took over the State Department from the hapless William Rogers, he used the Foreign Service like the sharp instrument it was. His opening to China was managed almost entirely by Foreign Service Officers. Kissinger’s book Diplomacy is dedicated to ‘the men and women of the Foreign Service of the United States, whose dedication and professionalism sustain American diplomacy’.

The sudden collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991 ushered in an era in which it appeared for a brief moment that liberal democratic values would be ascendant everywhere, in a triumphant neo-Hegelian end of history. In such a world diplomacy and diplomats appeared to be anachronisms, and a brilliant young French diplomat named Jean-Marie Guehenno predicted the demise of the nation-state, destined to be swept away by the forces of globalization. In Silicon Valley the information age had dawned, and with it the conviction in advanced circles that states were the wave of the past. Tom Friedman announced that the world was flat. Digital networks operating ‘above and below the state’ would replace the antiquated paper hierarchies of governments, declared Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor who became Hillary Clinton’s director of policy planning at the State Department.

Side by side with these millennial notions, after 9/11 an endless War on Terror had replaced the Cold War as the frame for our foreign policy and the center of gravity in national security policy moved away from the State Department. The Defense Department’s budget doubled, as did that of the intelligence agencies, while the State Department’s remained a favorite target for budget cuts. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cast some 2000 Foreign Service officers as handmaidens to the military in futile nation-building tasks, and a greatly expanded White House staff took over many of the State Department’s policy functions — referred to by lazy journalists as the ‘national security council’ although it is only the staff of the national security adviser.

The Foreign Service of the United States, to give its full title, occupies the uncomfortable place in the national security system where the politics of the beltway meet the realities of the outside world. Its comparative advantage derives from this unique and sometimes precarious situation. By beltway standards it is a small bureaucracy of some 8,000 people — by way of comparison, there are 30,000 people in the U.S. Forest Service, and 14,000 special agents in the FBI — but it has a large job. Foreign Service officers run our embassies and consulates overseas, 270 of them at last count, as well as staffing key positions in the State Department. Most of our ambassadors come from the Foreign Service — 65% in recent years though that number is not set in stone, and if this administration lasts long enough, it is likely to be lower than that. Just as important, all of the deputies of our ambassadors, who act with the full authority of chiefs of mission in their absence, come from the Foreign Service — a red line that may not hold much longer if a diminished Foreign Service is unable to field credible candidates. When I went to Libya in 2012 as a retired officer, the assistant secretaries for the Near East and diplomatic security were both retired too. Would the Navy recall retired flag officers to duty because nobody on active duty could be found to command destroyers or carrier battle groups?

Foreign Service officers are a small minority of the personnel at our embassies overseas, which we have taken to thinking of as foreign bases rather than as missions to other governments. Our embassies are treated as platforms by a long list of government agencies, not just the CIA and the Defense Department, but the Agriculture Department, the Commerce Department, the FBI, and our Orwellian Department of Homeland Security, and it is the job of ambassadors and their Foreign Service deputies to manage this collection of people with a wide variety of Washington masters and often conflicting mandates. Without a firm baton the result is cacophony or worse, with the horn section trying to drown out the strings, and some musicians playing a different tune altogether. In Libya where I served for a few months in late 2012, I do not recall receiving an instruction from the State Department — at least not one that I carried out — but I dealt on a daily basis with the FBI, the CIA, and the four star general responsible for Africa.

To continue reading, see Diplomacy in the Age of Trump – Part 2

Laurence Pope is a former US Ambassador and Political Advisor to C-in-C Central Command.

This text was delivered by the author as a Camden Conference event on 21 November, 2017. It is reprinted here as a blog posting, in two parts, with the permission of the author.

Related events

Load more

Related resources

Load more

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog